Songs and Musicians
Almost all blues artists of note have played on Memphis's Beale Street at one time or another. Many major contributors to blues and rock and roll called Memphis or St. Louis home at some point in their careers. Learn more about Memphis and St. Louis's most significant blues musicians and their music below:
|Rosco Gordon||Willie Nix|
|W.C. Handy||Junior Parker|
|Albert King||Sam Phillips|
|B.B. King||Ike Turner|
|Memphis Minnie||Peetie Wheatstraw|
Born: 1934, Memphis, Tennessee
Died: July 11, 2002, New York, New York
Rosco Gordon was an integral part of the Memphis Beale Street blues scene during the forties and fifties. He created a shuffle rhythm on piano known as "Rosco's rhythm" that influenced blues, and, in the opinion of some historians, also inspired the creation of the distinctive rhythm of Jamaican ska, itself a precursor of reggae. On Beale Street Gordon worked with Johnny Ace, Bobby Blue Bland and others, and in the early fifties his song "Booted" hit number one on the R&B charts. That same year he had another hit with "No More Doggin'." Throughout his career he never matched that early success, but he did continue to record and perform. Like many bluesmen he took an extended hiatus from music to earn an alternative living, but later in his life he began performing again, and continued to do so until his death in 2002.
Essential listening: "Booted," "I'm Gonna Shake It," "No More Doggin'," "She's My Baby"
Born: November 16, 1873, Muscle Shoals, Alabama
Died: March 28, 1958, New York, New York
Also known as: William Christopher Handy
W.C. Handy is widely recognized by his self-proclaimed moniker, "Father of the Blues" due to his steadfast and pioneering efforts to document, write and publish blues music and his life-long support of the genre. Although much of his musical taste leaned toward a more sophisticated and polished sound, Handy was among the first to recognize the value of the blues, and Southern black music in general, as an important American legacy. Handy was an accomplished bandleader and songwriter who performed throughout the South before continuing his career in New York. He came across the Delta blues in the late 1890s, and his composition "Memphis Blues," published in 1912, was the first to include "blues" in the title. Some historians don't consider "Memphis Blues" to be an actual blues song, however it did influence the creation of other blues tunes, including the historic "Crazy Blues," which is commonly known as the first blues song to ever be recorded (by Mamie Smith in 1920). A Memphis park was named after Handy in recognition of his contribution to blues and the Blues Foundation recognizes the genre's achievements annually with the prestigious W.C. Handy award.
Essential listening: "St. Louis Blues," "Yellow Dog Blues," "Beale Street Blues"
Born: April 25, 1923, Indianola, Mississippi
Died: December 21, 1992
Also known as: Albert Nelson
As a child an enterprising Albert King reportedly built his own guitar out of a cigar box. A brilliant guitarist in his own right, King was originally inspired by Texas blues great Blind Lemon Jefferson. Like B.B. King, he was a master of single string solos and used the technique of "string bending" to great emotional effect. He was also left-handed, and instead of restringing the guitar, he just learned to play it upside down, which added an original tone to his style. His blues are infused with a Memphis soul sound; he became a rock and blues star after signing to the Memphis-based Stax label, which was responsible for some of the finest soul music ever recorded. King always managed to keep his sound fresh and original, and had a significant impact on blues and rock; he has influenced Eric Clapton, Robert Clay, Stevie Ray Vaughan and Otis Rush, among others. He had the honor of playing San Francisco's Fillmore West on opening night with John Mayall and Jimi Hendrix and often shared the bill with rock artists throughout his career. King continued to tour until his death in 1992.
Essential listening: "Don't Throw Your Love on Me So Strong," "Crosscut Saw," "Born Under a Bad Sign," "I'll Play the Blues for You"
Born: September 16, 1925, Indianola, Mississippi
Also known as: Riley B. King
B.B. King's career has spanned five decades and taken him from the clubs of Memphis to the finest concert halls in the world. He's known as the King of the Blues, and for his enduring and successful efforts as a gracious, respected blues diplomat he deserves much of the credit for the genre's mainstream popularity and recognition. Early in his career King worked as a Memphis disc jockey, where he was known as the Beale Street Blues Boy, which was later shortened to B.B. Although King's roots are in Delta blues, his sound has always been more polished, probably due to his wide variety of influences, which include jazz, gospel and pop. King's highly influential style probably originally inspired by Texas blues greats Blind Lemon Jefferson and T-Bone Walker features "single string" guitar solos that are so well-integrated with his commanding vocals that it's sometimes hard to tell the two apart. He also "bends" the strings, which continues the sound in a way that enhances the music's emotion. He has influenced countless blues and rock artists, including Buddy Guy, Jimi Hendrix, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Johnny Winter and Jeff Beck. King continues to record and perform as powerfully as ever.
Essential listening: "How Blue Can You Get," "The Thrill is Gone," "Sweet Little Angel," "Paying the Cost to be the Boss"
Born: June 3, 1897, Algiers, Louisiana
Died: August 6, 1973, Memphis, Tennessee
Also known as: Lizzie Douglas
Memphis Minnie was an accomplished guitarist, banjo player, vocalist and songwriter whose career was long and prolific, and she won the enduring respect of her contemporaries, male and female. Her talent had an impact on Memphis's famed Beale Street blues community as well as both the pre-war and post-war Chicago blues scene. She established herself on Beale Street during the 1920s, then moved to Chicago in 1930, where she reportedly regularly won guitar playing competitions, beating out the best of them, including Big Bill Broonzy, Tampa Red, and Muddy Waters. In addition to her superb musicianship, her performance featured rich vocals with a deep, full tone. Her songwriting, often conveying a purely female perspective, was as gutsy and suggestive as any of her male counterparts, and many of her originals have become classics. Among her many contributions to the blues, she was also known for her kindness and generosity toward up and coming blues musicians. In 1971 Led Zeppelin recorded its take on her original "When the Levee Breaks" a testament to the timeless appeal of her music.
Essential listening: "Bumble Bee," "I'd Rather See Him Dead," "Moaning the Blues," "When the Levee Breaks," "Hoodoo Lady"
Born: August 6, 1922, Memphis, Tennessee
Died: July 8, 1991, Leland, Mississippi
Willie Nix was an innovative drummer and gifted lyricist as well as vocalist, and was an integral part of Memphis's Beale Street blues community during the late forties and early fifties. Nix originally began performing as a tap-dancer when he was very young his creative sense of rhythm as a drummer likely had its roots in his instincts as a dancer. Nix recorded and played in both Memphis and Chicago, and worked with legendary bluesmen in both cities, among them Junior Parker, B.B. King, Elmore James, Sonny Boy Williamson II, and Bobby Blue Bland. Nix eventually moved back to Memphis and continued to be a local fixture in the blues community. He performed on and off until his death in 1991.
Essential listening: "Truckin' Little Woman," "Nervous Wreck," "No More Love"
Born: March 27, 1932, West Memphis, Arkansas
Died: November 18, 1971, Chicago, Illinois
Also known as: Herman Parker, Jr.
Junior Parker was known for his prowess as a vocalist, bandleader, songwriter and harmonica player, but it was his voice which music historians describe as "honeyed," "velvet-smooth" and "magic carpet" that brought him real fame. Parker was mentored in the subtleties of blues harp (harmonica) by the blues legend Sonny Boy Williamson II, and joined Howlin' Wolf's band when he was still a teenager. He was part of Memphis's famous Beale Street blues community. Reportedly one of talent scout Ike Turner's many discoveries, Parker recorded for Sun records in the early fifties; his rendition of the self-penned "Mystery Train" made it to number 5 on the R&B charts and was later covered by Elvis Presley. Parker's recordings would make the charts many more times throughout the decade and into the early sixties. During the late fifties Parker led a highly successful R&B revue, Blues Consolidated, which also featured fellow Beale Street vocalist Bobby Blue Bland. Though he never was able to sustain the fame he'd achieved during the fifties, Parker continued working as a recording artist and performer throughout the sixties.
Essential listening: "Mystery Train," "Next Time You See Me," "Barefoot Rock," "Feelin' Good," "Love My Baby"
Born: January 1, 1923, Florence, Alabama
Died: July 31, 2003, Memphis, Tennessee
Sam Phillips has had an enormous impact on music, particularly blues, rock and roll and rockabilly. As an innovative producer and owner of Memphis's legendary Sun Studios, Phillips made his mark on music history by discovering and recording such legends as Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and others. Slightly earlier in his career, however, Phillips recorded many blues legends, including Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Little Milton and Junior Parker. Sun Studios is often called "The Birthplace of Rock and Roll" in 1951 Phillips recorded the legendary single "Rocket 88," which is often referred to as the first rock and roll record. The song reached number one on R&B charts and helped put Memphis on the musical map. Phillip's obvious gift for bringing out the best in his recording artists is evident on early Sun recordings, which are also known for their live, vital sound. Sun Studios still exists in its original Memphis location.
Essential listening: "B.B. Blues," "My Baby Walked Off," "I Found a New Love," "Lookin' for My Baby" (from Blue Flames: A Sun Blues Collection, Rhino-Sun)
Born: November 5, 1931, Clarksdale, Mississippi
Also known as: Izear Luster Turner, Jr.
Ike Turner has been an integral part of the history of blues, rock and R&B. As a pianist and guitarist he backed visiting bluesmen and performed with his own band, the Kings of Rhythm, while still in high school. He worked as a talent scout in Memphis and throughout the south, and as such he accelerated the careers of Howlin' Wolf, Little Milton and others; as a session musician he often backed up the talent he discovered. Turner's band recorded the song "Rocket 88" in 1951 (recorded under the name Jackie Brenston and his Delta Cats), which hit number 1 on the R&B charts and is often called the "first rock and roll song." The band became very popular in St. Louis, and in the late fifties Turner added vocalist Annie Mae Bullock to the mix (who later changed her name to Tina Turner and married Ike). The band became the Ike & Tina Turner Review, and made R&B and rock history, charting singles, packing black nightclubs and touring with the Rolling Stones. Tina left the band and the marriage in 1974; subsequently Ike experienced some hard times, and his career faded. He later made a comeback, and continues to record and perform.
Essential listening: "Rocket 88," "Shake a Tail Feather," "Proud Mary," "Steel Guitar Rag," "I'm Lonesome Baby," "Tore Up," "Ike's Theme," "Catfish Blues"
Born: December 21, 1902, Ripley, Tennessee
Died: December 21, 1941, East St. Louis, Illinois
Also known as: William Bunch
Peetie Wheatstraw began performing in 1929, the year of the Great Depression, and enjoyed enormous popularity in spite of the devastating economic conditions and lulls in the careers of other artists. He was a talented songwriter and commonly addressed rather dark themes the supernatural, death, sex and addiction yet his music was uplifting due to his witty lyrics and the wide range and expressive, buoyant quality of his vocal delivery. His juxtaposition of dark themes with a message to appreciate life is perhaps partly why his music was so surprisingly successful during such trying times. Wheatstraw was primarily a piano player and worked with excellent guitarists, including Kokomo Arnold and Lonnie Johnson; he and Johnson were a recording and performing team for 10 years. He reportedly took his name from an "evil twin" character from black folk tales, and during his career he was also nicknamed "The Devil's Son-in Law" and the "High Sheriff of Hell." Wheatstraw died while celebrating his 39th birthday when, reportedly, he and his buddies tried, and failed, to beat a speeding train.
Essential listening: "Suicide Blues," "You Can't Stop Me From Drinking," "The Devil's Son-in-Law," "Peetie Wheatstraw Stomp"